When Elon Musk announced he’d put thousands of satellites in the sky and deliver internet to the world, it sounded like a far-fetched pipe dream that would never come true. Here we are in 2021 and Starlink is available in many parts of the world (US, Canada, including Australia.
Given Australia’s challenging geography of a heavily distributed population across a large geographic area, Starlink has the opportunity to deliver high-speed internet to people in regional and rural locations that NBN simply could not.
Starlink works very differently than traditional satellite internet like SkyMuster, in that it operates in low-earth orbit. This has many positives, but also some drawbacks. At the time of writing, there are 1553 Starlink satellites in orbit with batches of 60 going up every other week. With closer proximity to earth, Starlink is able to offer faster speeds and lower latency than other satellite options.
The downside of running satellites closer is that these are more susceptible to space junk and can need replacing.
This week I had the opportunity to get hands-on with Starlink and see what it’s like in regional Victoria.
Each Starlink Kit includes everything you need to get online including your Starlink (dish), Wi-Fi router, power supply, cables and mounting tripod.
From the moment you first see the Starlink box, you get an appreciation that this is a big product. When you open the box, you’ll find that the satellite dish accounts for a majority of the size, but there’s also a significant portion of the box allocated to the very generous network cable. After removing the hard plastic packaging, it reveals the remaining components and allows you to finally remove the dish.
Setup is a breeze, just sit down the tripod and insert the dish into the top of it until you hear the click that lets you know it’s secure in place. There are other mounting options available (like a pole or roof mount for A$60), but the tripod mount is the only one included.
The dish needs to be setup outside to connect to the satellites, so finding the right location may be your hardest task. For testing I used our back lawn, but more permanent setups will take some more consideration. With the location sorted, connect the ethernet cable from the dish to the power brick, and network cable to the router and also the power brick (the white and black sides to the power brick makes this obvious and fool proof).
With connections sorted, just plug the power cable in and download the Starlink Mobile app for Android or iOS. Once you have it installed, run it and tap Setup to get started.
Follow the on-screen prompts to guide you through the setup process. This setup is fast and easy, just connect to the hotspot created by Starlink, nominate a name for the WiFi network it produces and set a password to secure the network. If you’re replacing an existing WiFi network, let’s say from the NBN, then you’d be smart to use the same Network name (SSID) and password, which will allow your devices to join Starlink without reconfiguring.
When the setup is complete, the dish automatically orients to the required angle to connect with Starlink satellites for your location. It is these smarts that make Starlink significantly easier, and able to be done by consumers, compared to a qualified technician like in the case of a Foxtel dish installation who needs to manually align the dish.
The first real test of Starlink will be a Speed Test and within the Starlink mobile app, they understand this, offering a Speed Test button which takes you out to Fast.com. Personally I like SpeedTest.net as those with accounts can store their history of speed tests to compare performance between networks and at different times of the week.
My first speed test on May 12th at 2:50PM resulted in the following performance figures:
- Download – 284 Mbps
- Upload – 23.6 Mbps
- Ping – 52ms
My second speed test on May 15th at 10:00AM resulted in the following performance figures:
- Download – 255 Mbps
- Upload – 40.7 Mbps
- Ping – 39ms
From these couple of examples, we can see the speeds do bounce around a little, but are generally excellent, particularly for the downloads. The ping times as one of my biggest areas of interest, as the lower-earth orbit positions of Starlink satellites is specifically designed to deliver low-latency. At 39-52ms, it’ll be generally fine for browsing the web, email, watching movies and even most real-time communication like video conferencing.
If you’re a professional gamer, then clearly you’ll still be chasing lower ping times and if you have access to it, FTTP will always offer the lowest ping times, but for those that can’t, there is good news on the way.
The performance of Starlink today is not the end of the story, with Elon Musk posting in February that ‘Speed will double to ~300Mb/s & latency will drop to ~20ms later this year’.
If you live in regional or rural Australia and have been frustrated by the speeds provided by NBN, then Starlink is a really viable option for you, offering a dramatic improvement to your internet speeds, regardless of the fact you may live in an area that isn’t densely populated.
Everyone will have a different perspective regarding the affordability of Starlink. There’s no doubt the NBN solutions are cheaper, so if you’re budget-constrained that’s your best option, but if you can prioritise internet in the budget, then here are the costs:
Hardware A$709.00 + $100 shipping and handling for a total of A$809.00. The Starlink service costs A$139.00 per month and for that price, you currently get unlimited data. That may change in the future as Starlink comes out of Beta phase, but for now it’s a decent deal.
If we analyse just the monthly cost for the performance you get it’s a compelling offer. Personally I pay A$99pm with Aussie Broadband for 100Mbps/20Mbps and unlimited data, on a FTTP NBN plan. Starlink would cost an additional A$30 per month, but for that I could almost triple the download speeds and make some improvements in upload.
Personally, I’ve never seen super low ping times at my house, regularly getting between 10-20ms, so they would take a bit of a hit for the short term, but if Musk can deliver on those promised reductions, we’ll be talking a fairly similar situation there.
Overall for a small incremental cost, Starlink could provide much faster internet. My next plan upgrade option at Aussie Broadband is 250/25Mbps for A$129, just $10 shy of Starlink. Going up to the top teir of 1Gbps/50Mbps costs A$149.00 or $10pm more than Starlink for as much as 3-4x the speed. From this, you can see it’s a challenging business case for anyone on FTTP to make the shift.
For those who are frustrated that the NBN didn’t deliver the speeds they wished (many are still on less than 50Mbps, so less than 20Mbps), then Starlink will be a very welcome option and they’d leave the NBN in a heartbeat, no longer being technology constrained, simply pay more to get more.